Evening Conversation with James K.A. Smith
On October 7th 2019 the Trinity Forum and the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability hosted an Evening Conversation with author and philosopher James K.A. Smith and Washington Post Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig. Their personal and meaningful reflections on the relevance of Saint Augustine made for an unforgettable conversation and evening.
Transcript | James K.A. Smith
Katie Weins: Good evening, everybody. Good evening. Hello, welcome to the National Press Club with this joint evening here with the Trinity Forum and the Council on Educational Standards and Accountability. I’m Katie Wiens, the executive director for CESA. Tonight, I am excited to introduce and to think about who we are as an organization. CESA is a council of like-minded educators striving towards excellence in Christian schooling because we believe it is what the gospel requires and we believe in raising the bar in Christian education. So tonight, as we do that, we are thankful for this partnership with the Trinity Forum because we have very similar missions: we want to elevate the conversation. And tonight we’re very thankful for that partnership because we know our speakers, Jamie and Liz, are going to help us to do that, and we know that that conversation will continue, and it will catalyze a good growth within our school populations. So thank you to the Trinity Forum for this partnership. Thank you for all of you who are here, and we’re excited for what you all have tonight.
Cherie Harder: Well, thank you, Katie, for that. On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, welcome to tonight’s Evening Conversation with Jamie Smith and Elizabeth Bruenig on Jamie’s new and fascinating work, On the Road with St. Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. We’re really delighted that each of you are here and really kind of amazed at how well each of you have found a seat. There are still some seats up in the balcony if you are struggling to find one. But thank you for making it out and for having such a full house.
In addition to our being thrilled that each of you are here, I also just want to recognize a few special guests. We’re really delighted that, as Katie mentioned, to have the board of CESA here, as well as Katie. And we’re also delighted to have our own board of trustees of the Trinity Forum here tonight: our chairman, Byron Smith, George Clark and his wife Ashley, Howard Dahl and his wife Ann, Sam Funk, Price Harding, Shirley Hoekstra, Paul McNulty, Richard Miles and his wife Phoebe, Jim Spear, David Sveen and his wife Christy. We’re really thrilled to have you all joining us this evening.
And we’re delighted to have a sold-out crowd tonight—for Augustine. It’s fantastic. We actually had to, like, shut down registration earlier today, so if you had friends who wanted to be here tonight but couldn’t make it, fear not, we will be livestreaming the event tonight on both our Facebook page and on our YouTube channel. You can let your friends know right now to join us by livestream. Those of you who are already joining us by livestream. Great to have you. Love it if you checked in. We’ll also be posting pictures on Facebook almost immediately afterwards. And if you did miss tonight, we will have video up within 72 hours.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Trinity Forum and I see many new faces out there tonight, we work to provide a space and resources for the discussion of life’s greatest questions in the context of faith. And we do this by providing readings and publications which draw upon classic works of literature and letters that explore the enduring questions and connect the timeless wisdom of the humanities with timely issues, as well as sponsoring programs such as the one tonight to connect leading thinkers with thinking leaders and engaging those big questions of life and ultimately coming to better know the Author of the answers.
So with each new Evening Conversation, we try to take on and wrestle with one of those big questions, and one of the seminal figures in history who has shaped our view of those questions, even our assumptions about them, was a fourth-century North African rhetoric teacher, priest, and later Bishop known as Augustine of Hippo, whose weighty and dense works such as City of God and Confessions has shaped the thought of philosophers, theologians, and political scientists, and other intellectuals ranging from Aquinas to Luther, Calvin, Virgil, Cicero, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King Jr., Kierkegaard, and even Nietzsche, just to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine many individuals in history who have wrestled with more vigor, tenacity, transparency, or passion with the big questions than Saint Augustine, and any work that invites us to journey with him will make undoubtedly for a wild ride. And indeed, just a short peek at the table of contents of the book we’re going to discuss tonight shows us what’s ahead. We’ll be grappling with the nature and meaning of freedom, ambition, sex, motherhood, friendship, enlightenment, justice, and death are all stops along the way.
But as our keynote speaker tonight will argue, the journey with Augustine is not merely an academic one, but a journey into oneself or, in his words, “a travelogue of the heart, a road trip with a prodigal who’s already been there where you think you need to go, a guide who functions less like a judge and more like an AA sponsor.” And our speaker invites us to go, in his words, “spelunking in the caves of your soul” with Augustine and to consider or reconsider the questions that the ancient Augustine raises and the answers that he points to.
And indeed, it is hard to imagine a writer or a thinker who could extend that invitation and travel with us on that journey with more insight, intellectual verve, or scholarly imagination than our keynote speaker tonight, Dr. James K. A. Smith. Jamie, as he goes by, is a philosopher and professor at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reform Theology & Worldview. He’s the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, You Are What You Love, Awaiting the King, which we invited him to speak here at this very room just a few years ago tonight, in addition to his most recent work, which he’ll be discussing. In addition, Jamie served as the past editor in chief of Comment Magazine, as well as the brand-new editor-in-chief of Image Journal. His popular writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Books and Culture, First Things, and The Washington Post. And last, but certainly not least, I am very proud to say that he is a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. He and his wife, Deanna, are parents of four children, live in Michigan, and we’re really delighted that Deanne could join us as well tonight.
So responding to Jamie will be Elizabeth Bruenig. Elizabeth or Liz is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, where she writes on Christianity, politics, and public life, and earlier this year was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She received her master’s in philosophy and Christian theology at the University of Cambridge, where she studied as a martial scholar and wrote her thesis on Saint Augustine. Previously, she was an editor for the Post “Outlook” and Post “Everything” sections, a staff writer at the New Republic, and her essays and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Atlantic, Boston Review, Jacobin Magazine, First Things, and many more. She lives here in D.C. with her husband, Matt, who has also joined us tonight, as well as her two daughters, and I’m honored and delighted to note that she’s actually joined us from maternity leave tonight. So thank you very much for that, Liz. After Jamie provides his keynote remarks and Liz gives a response, we’ll have a brief, moderated conversation between the three of us, followed by questions from the audience.
Jamie Smith: Thank you so much. Cherie, thanks for that warm welcome. It’s always a treat to partner with the Trinity Forum, and I also just want to echo my thanks to Liz for being part of tonight. I think a lot of people are—it’s a full house because Liz is here and I’m totally OK with [that]. I know Deanna is here because Liz is here, so I’m really excited about the conversation. My passion, my hope, my goal for this book is to make the case that this ancient African bishop has sort of read our postmodern email and knows us better than we know ourselves, but also holds out and offers to our cultural moment a very different account and invitation of how to be human. So what I want to do tonight is I want to—I’m not going to talk about sex, you’ll be disappointed to hear. Or death, so you can, you’re welcome. But what I would like to do is give you a feel for how and why I think actually we’ve been influenced by Augustine more than we realize and how he offers us an alternative.
And I want to start by maybe getting us to appreciate the extent to which we have all in late modernity in Western societies been schooled by invisible philosophies that we might never have read, but have nonetheless trickled down to us in the water we swim in, of film and television and literature and drama, and that in a way we are living out stories that have been handed down to us from philosophers you might never have heard of. The one figure I want to just offer a footnote to is the German philosopher—I went to Villanova University to study for my doctorate—Martin Heidegger. And I just want to say a little bit about Heidegger. So Martin Heidegger is in some ways— 90 percent of you’ve never heard of him. That’s exactly right. And yet you are more Heideggerian than you realize, only insofar as Heidegger was sort of the father of existentialism. And it is from existentialism that we all inherited the language of authenticity, of finding ourselves, of this quest for identity and so on. And what’s interesting is there’s this trickle-down effect then, where all of us assume that we are on this quest to find ourselves, to forge our identities, to be authentic, to resist inauthenticity. And in many ways, that’s the inheritance of philosophical streams of thought that have trickled down from Germany and France in the middle of the 20th century.
I won’t get into this too much tonight, but one long subtext of the book is— Here’s the interesting thing: I went to Villanova, which is an Augustinian Catholic university, by the way. I went there to study Martin Heidegger. It turns out God wanted me to study St. Augustine. And so he put all these Augustinian monks all over the place. And one of the things that happened was, as I was studying Heidegger and trying to understand this philosophy, the backstory of Heidegger’s work came out, and it turns out that all the key concepts and ideas that were the bombshell in his 1927 book first emerged when he was lecturing in 1919 and 1921 on Augustine’s Confessions.
So the terrain, the water is already sort of filled with these Augustinian influences. What I realized is we are also more Augustinian than we realize, and he has both directly and indirectly shaped the way that we understand our pursuits, especially perhaps this call to authenticity, to finding ourselves. In some ways, Augustine put us on the road that we’re on. And what I want to do is dive in tonight and think about freedom as a case study for appreciating two very different visions of how to be human, one that we’ve inherited from this sort of cultural water that we swim in and then to hear the Augustinian alternative. Mark Lilla, a great critic and scholar, once wrote, he reviewed a biography of Saint Augustine a couple of years ago for The New York Times, and he says, “You know, there was a long time in the West where Augustine’s Confessionswas the paradigm that one could aspire to for introspection, for a project of a self. And then Montaigne comes along,” he says, “and says, ‘Sin? Don’t worry, be happy.'” And then Lila says this, he says, “As modern people, we have chosen Montaigne over Augustine. We traded pious self-cultivation for undemanding self-esteem. But is love of self really enough to be happy?” he asks. “You know the answer to that, dear reader. And so did Augustine.”
So let’s listen to Augustine. The question I want to put on the table is what does it mean to be free? This was an ongoing perennial question for Augustine. What does it mean to be free? One of the reasons why I think maybe especially in American culture with this vast country of ribboned highways, one of the reasons we idolize the road is because we imagine it as the very pinnacle of freedom, right? The highway is my way. Now, there’s a certain irony here, because the road actually is already somebody else’s idea of where you should go. Right? The highway is not a blank slate. It’s actually a network of channels laid down where many others wore a path before. So the irony is that even when you’re alone on the open road, you’re actually following somebody. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Augustine, I think, reminds us how ancient the identification of freedom with leaving is. So long before there were Shelby Mustangs and Route 66 and rebels without a cause, the prodigal son was itching for freedom from the scowl of his father and the scolding of his mother. If freedom is the absence of constraint, well, then you’re not going to find that at home. When he arrived in Carthage as a student, the young Augustine anticipated in many ways a million fraternity and sorority rushes in the centuries that would follow. Unfettered, with room to get his elbows and various other appendages out, he swells to fill more space, chasing all kinds of new opportunities and delight. He says he falls in love with love. “I rushed headlong into love,” he confesses, “by which I was longing to be captured.” It’s funny how we can consider being captured freedom as long as we were the ones who chose it. So the young Augustine uses this newfound freedom. He leaves, he gets out of dodge. He gets out of the provinces. He heads to Carthage, he heads to Rome, he heads to Milan. He uses this newfound freedom to devote himself to these pursuits that will captivate. He becomes voracious in his hungry quest for experience. He’ll be captivated, he says, by theatrical shows. He’ll give himself over to all kinds of entertainments and distractions that will actually end up enslaving him to his own passions. Freedom, it turns out in this picture, is the right to be titillated, entertained, absorbed, all on one’s own terms. Freedom is freedom from, and the way to get from is to leave.
Now, it seems to me that in our cultural moment, in many ways, that is the only notion of freedom we know. It’s the only way that we can imagine freedom, freedom as self-determination, freedom to decide my own good. Freedom just means, “Hands off. I got this. I know what I want. I get to decide what my own good is.” So that’s not unlike Augustine’s experience. If you read Augustine’s Confessions of his experience of this chase, this search, it will sound perennial. It will sound contemporary. You know this person. You saw him at the Alabama football game on Saturday.
So what Augustine hadn’t anticipated, though, and what he tried to ignore even while he was experiencing it, was the exhaustion of that chase. What he envisioned as freedom, which was the removal of constraints, starts to actually feel like its own kind of punishment. This obliteration of boundaries, that looked like liberation to the young Augustine, but he can then start to feel himself sort of dissolving in a resulting amorphousness. It’s a little bit like, you know, you’re swimming in your cousin’s aboveground pool, one of those tiny little pools that are propped up, right? And you’re swimming and you want to do laps. And so you’re swimming in this pool and it’s so maddening you keep bumping up against the wall. And so you keep bumping up against the wall and you keep bumping up against the wall. And you wish there were no walls to the pool, and so finally in your rambunctious, you collapse the walls, but you’re not then free. There’s no pool. That’s not liberation. The pool didn’t get bigger. It disappeared. You’re just left in the soggy ruins.
And interestingly, this is the language, this is the metaphor that Augustine uses constantly in the Confessions. Listen to this one description of his experience here: “I was storm-tossed,” he says, “gushing out, running every which way, frothing into thin air in my filthy affairs.” That doesn’t feel like freedom. That feels like loss. What’s emerging here isn’t just an admission of failure. This is why I think Augustine is so interesting, by the way, for a lot of people who live in D.C. Augustine’s experience of loss isn’t from failure; it’s from success. It’s from achievement. It’s from getting exactly what he wants. Those who have been eaten up by their own freedom, for whom the loss of guardrails only meant ending up in a ditch of despair and disappointment, start to wonder whether freedom is all it’s cracked up to be, or whether freedom might be something other than the absence of constraint and the multiplication of options. See, I think it is a terrible and terrifying thing to know what you want to be and then realize you’re the only one standing in your way.
Jamie Smith: This was Augustine’s existential experience: to want with every fiber of your soul to be someone different, to escape the you you’ve made of yourself, only to fall back into the self you hate over and over and over again. So after the thrill of independence and experiments in self-actualization and drinking your so-called potential for being to the dregs, when the exhaustion starts to set in and then eventually morphs into a kind of self-disgust, you reach this point where you know you want a different life but are enchained to the one that you’ve made. This is one of Augustine’s most brilliant psychological analyzes in Book Eight of his Confessions, where he analyzes the links in the chain by which he became his own jailer, that what looked like freedom and me getting to choose to do whatever I want slowly builds into a chain of my needing to do this thing, and then it becomes this habit. And before you know it, I can’t not do this thing and I’m enslaved to it. There’s a kind of freedom in which we become our own jailers. Now I’m chasing it not because I want it, but because I need it.
So, what Augustine really describes—the way I think he would describe our experience of late-modern freedom—he says, “That sounds like the freedom of an addict.” The habit, which becomes a necessity, the sighing after an impossible freedom, the longing for a new will, the despair of ever overcoming it. Indeed, he goes on to draw a picture of someone who in a way can’t get out of bed. They can’t rise, they can’t move. There’s a paralysis that sets in in their experience. I think to read Augustine on freedom in the 21st century is to gain a vantage point that makes all of our freedom look like addiction. When we only imagine freedom as negative freedom—what I mean is, if you only think of freedom as throwing off constraints, as hands-off liberty to choose what I want—then actually our so-called freedom is inclined to captivity. When freedom is mere voluntariness without further orientation or goals or specification of the good, then my choice is just another means by which I’m trying to look for satisfaction. And here’s Augustine’s unapologetically theological diagnosis of that situation: When I try to satisfy my hungers and longings by glomming onto finite things, I am doomed to disappointment because actually what I’m trying to feed is a hunger that is infinite. And insofar as that infinite hunger keeps trying to settle on and settle for and satisfy itself with merely created things, it is doomed to despair. It’s futility. It’s vanity. It’s angst. It’s restlessness. You all know that opening line from the Confessions in the first paragraph: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” What is our restlessness? Our restlessness is when the infinite hunger of hearts made for the divine keep settling for cheap substitutes as if they were more.
Then, so this this is why I love it that Cherie highlighted the analogy of the AA sponsor. I actually think this is a really, really significant thread in the book that I’m trying to unpack because in many ways— I don’t know if any of you know the writer Leslie Jamison. She has a brand-new collection of essays out, but a couple of years ago, she published a remarkable book called The Recovering, which is like this insider account of the experience of addiction and recovery. And in The Recovering, Jamison provides this insight into what it feels like to be addicted. And she says this: “Addiction is always a story that has already been told because it inevitably repeats itself. It grinds down to this: desire, use, repeat. Desire, use, repeat.” And she says, actually, what characterizes this phenomenon of addiction is, she calls it a narrowing of repertoire. So what happens is you think your freedom has given you everything in the world available to you. But in fact, when your freedom turns into this enslavement to a passion and a desire and a dependence, now what happens is actually, you spend your whole life just trying to get this thing, over and over and over again. It’s one of the reasons why she says the initial title of the big book of AA was The Way Out. The Way Out. And she asks, “out of what?” “Not just drinking,” she says. “It is the way out of the claustrophobic crawl space of the self.”
Coming to an end of oneself is the way out of disordered freedom. And so the irony: my freedom of choice brings me to the point where I need someone else to give me a will that is actually free. That’s the Augustinian story, not merely free to choose, but free, finally empowered to choose the good. If freedom is going to be more than just freedom from, if freedom is the power of freedom for, then I have to trade autonomy for a different kind of dependence. And that’s what grates on us who prize autonomy. Coming to the end of myself is the realization that I’m dependent on someone other than me if I’m going to be truly free. That’s paradox. You see, if you’re locked into that narrow, negative conception of freedom, you think dependence just means being unfree. But what Augustine paints is a very, very different picture in which I am most liberated when I am dependent on the one who gives himself away for me.
A later reflection from Augustine on his experience is, I think, poignant and encouraging here. It’s actually one of my favorite lines ever from Augustine: “To desire the aid of grace is the beginning of grace.” To desire the aid of grace is the beginning of grace. So if you come to the end of yourself and you’ve wondered if there’s help and are surprised to find yourself at times hoping for a grace from beyond that you don’t even believe in, it’s a sign that grace is already at work. You don’t have to believe to ask. Here’s the thing: you can ask for help for believing too. Wanting help is its own nascent trust. The desire for grace is the first grace. Coming to the end of yourself is the first revelation. The first epiphany. So what Augustine says is the release and liberation from our addictions, our distractions, our absorption in the world is this outward, upward turn, and it’s this posture of dependence that actually liberates us. It’s a reliance that releases. Once you’ve realized you need someone not me—which, by the way, is also a very key step in the 12-step program. “I need someone, not me, outside of me.” Once you realize that, you also start to look at constraint differently. What used to look like walls hemming you in, start to look like scaffolding that are holding you together. If freedom used to look like the no-obligation bliss of self-actualization, once that unfettered freedom has become its own bondage, you look at obligations as a restraint that gives you purpose, a center, the rebar of identity. When Augustine looks back at the way his younger self poured his soul out into sand, he cries, “If only someone could have imposed restraint on my disorder. That would have transformed to good purpose the fleeting experiences of beauty in these lowest things and fixed limits to indulgence in their charms.”
One of the reasons why I think Augustine is worth listening to again at this moment is because I think we might be surprised how many people are hoping somebody would give them boundaries. I think we might be surprised how many people are actually open to receiving the gift of restraint, channeling their desires and shoring up, thereby, a sense of self. Indeed, there may be a generational dynamic to this where boomers whose revolution of negative freedom remade the world imagine younger generations want the same, only to hear those young people asking for the gift of guardrails and the charity of boundaries. In other words, graced freedom looks like following a path someone has already blazed for you, realizing that on the road, you’re always already following somebody. So the question is who? And where are they headed? In fact, what deconstructs this myth of authenticity that we’ve inherited, bound up with negative freedom, is Augustine’s picture of a radically different way of following. On our story, if I’m authentic, if I’m sincere—and I’m only sincere if I act as if I’m making things up from scratch, expressing something inside me that’s all my own. It’s the burden I really do genuinely think that is the paralyzing burden that has created epidemic proportions of mental health challenges among university students in our colleges and universities today. It’s the burden of people saying, “You can be whatever you want. You just have to make it up.” Augustine turns all of this on its head and says, “You don’t have to find this inside and then express it, you can join something outside and it makes you.” You do to be.
So how does one practice their way into freedom, depending on the grace of the God who loves you, turning your heart out and up? This is a really boring answer: You join the community of practice that is the body of Christ, which is trying to follow Jesus, who’s the human who showed the way. In Greta Gerwig’s moving film Lady Bird—How many of you have seen Lady Bird? Ok. The rest of you are dead to me. [Laughter.] Homework. Homework. In Greta Gerwig’s moving film Lady Bird, we meet a young woman who embodies the quest for freedom as escape. Tired of the boring, backward backwaters of Sacramento, bristling at the nagging authority of her mother, embarrassed by her father’s lack of ambition, the young heroine refuses even the name she was given—imposition that it is. Demanding to be called Lady Bird is just one of her acts of defiance, and she chomps at the bit to get away to college—anywhere but Sacramento. You might remember there’s a scene where a teacher asks, “Lady Bird? Is that your given name?” “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me, by me.” That kind of freedom is receiving gifts from yourself. But at the end of the film, she comes home. But she comes home without leaving her college campus. She calls her parents and leaves a voicemail. “Hi, mom and dad, it’s me. Christine? It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one.” Oh, maybe the imposition was a gift, after all. Maybe being named without your choosing is a sign that you’re loved. She then speaks more directly to her mother, and as she does so images of Sacramento bathed in golden light are accompanied by this marvelously plaintive soundtrack. It’s a song by John Brian called “Reconcile.” “Hey, Mom. Did you feel emotional the first time you drove in Sacramento? I did. And I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life and stores and the whole thing.” We now see images of Christine driving winding her way through Sacramento, quietly awed and grateful by Sacramento. And it’s spliced with images of her mother doing exactly the same thing. “I want to tell you, I love you. Thank you. I’m— Thank you.” It turns out the confines of Sacramento were the scaffolding that gave her an identity. It was her Catholic school that made her compassionate. It was the imposing love of her mother that gave her the confidence to be herself. Home made her free.
At the end of Augustine’s wandering road, he found a father waiting for him after he ran away. And he recalls this, saying to that father: “You alone are always present, even to those who have taken themselves far from you after traveling many rough paths, and you gently wipe away their tears, and they weep yet more and rejoice through their tears. Where was I when I was seeking for you? You were there before me, but I had departed from myself. I could not even find myself, much less you.” Augustine understands our impulse to find ourselves. He just thinks it’s about being found. Thanks very much.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Thank you so much for coming out tonight. Thank you, Dr. Smith. It was wonderful, very hard act to follow. I’d like to thank the Trinity Forum and Cherie for putting this all together. You know, there are a lot of things a young student can do when they run off to another country for school to teach or to learn, which is one of the more modern and relatable things about Augustine, which Dr. Smith went into. But I also had a similar experience, a wild overseas experience. I left the United States at the end of my undergraduate degree and went to the University of Cambridge to study Christian theology, and there were so many things going on. I thought it was a completely rich time because every door seemed open. You could go through any of them. I could have done so many things. There were PhD programs, there was further study abroad. I had another year where I could go to a completely different university on my fellowship study, something completely new. My dad was telling me, “Go to LSE, study economics. Go to Wall Street.” There were a lot of things that were open to me at the time. And then back home in the United States finishing law school, I had this boyfriend I had had since high school in Texas. And so there were so many possibilities.
And at this time I was studying Augustine, and all at once in a fit of passion, I converted to Catholicism. I found myself at Easter vigil, receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist for the first time, horrifyingly from one of my professors. When I looked up, she was holding the precious blood. I almost fainted. I choked; it’s very vinegary. And I have very little memory of how I even got home, only that I walked to Easter vigil in the dark and I got home in the light. Even then, there were plenty of things that were still available to me, but I thought to myself, “Augustine goes into so many gardens. He’s always hanging out in gardens, thinking about them, and the one [where] he hears “tolle lege”—take up and read—begins his conversion to Christianity, made me think, God has told me, “I can’t explain to you right now why I need you to do what I need you to do. Only that the things that look like freedom to you, all the choices you have are not. And that where you’re going to find the maximum opportunity to become who you are is in this one garden I’ve set aside for you.”
I went home. I didn’t do the second year of my program. I got married to my husband, dropped out of a PhD program. Now we have two daughters. And my experience of that has been that the process of becoming who I am and the process of becoming a free person has happened within the confines of the things I didn’t understand why I did at the time. I married my husband at a courthouse in New Orleans. We drove there. It was a very quick discussion. He had a brand-new law degree and he was able to figure out where in the United States you don’t need to wait between getting your marriage license and getting married. Turns out it’s like Vegas and New Orleans. And so we got married like that. Having our first daughter was a surprise, but there was no question to us once we found out we were pregnant that we were going to have our first daughter. “Just do it,” God seems to say to us. “Just do it. I’m not going to explain to you right now why you have to, but once you’re there, you’ll know.” This was the great wisdom that I was able to glean from Augustine as a graduate student, and I barely understood it. The only thing I got out of it was “just do it and then you’ll understand.” As it turns out, that was everything, but at the time, I thought I really need to reread a lot of those books because there must be something that I’m not getting—and there’s a huge amount I’m not getting—but what I got, I got completely, and it was the context in which I could get everything else.
So when I was leaving the United Kingdom to come back to the United States, I was a little bit worried. I talked to my tutor who was a priest. And I said, “You know, we love Augustine, we love Augustine, you and I, and so many people in this divinity faculty. But my experience at the American university was not that he was looked upon kindly. What do I do?” And he said, “Have you ever read Jamie K.A. Smith?” And so I was sent back in the intellectual care of Dr. Smith, and I so much appreciate his body of work for that reason.
So one of the fascinating things about Augustine is that he has contemporary detractors. There are Augustine haters. How many writers from the fourth century have haters in 2019? You just don’t see it, right? No one ever writes an op-ed where they’re like, “Marcus Aurelius, it’s time. Like, your moment has come.” But just in 2017, Stephen Greenblatt, who wrote The Swerve, which many of you might have read, took Augustine down. I mean, he took him to task in The New Yorker. It is bizarre to see that happen. And he inspires that because, as Dr. Smith said, so much of what’s going on in our culture is precipitated in Augustine. And when people do their homework, they figure it out and they realize that to accomplish whatever project they’re trying to accomplish intellectually, they have to take down Augustine in the process. And that still happens in our public intellectual conversation.
As a matter of fact, the “freedom to”/”freedom from” distinction, the positive/negative freedom distinction, that Dr. Smith was discussing is made explicit in The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood has an argument with Augustine in The Handmaid’s Tale, and her argument is that the type of freedom you’re going to get out of the Augustinian vision of freedom, this vision of eudaimonia is going to be taken to this perverse, sadistic extreme in a theocratic institution of slavery. It’s going to conclude in a complete loss of liberty. Literal slavery enforced by noose and cattle prod is going to be the result of the kind of freedom envisioned by Augustine. And the characters openly discussed this in their dialogue in the novel—I don’t know, I haven’t seen the series.
So this is the contention that we modern Augustinians have to somehow rebut, and part of that rebuttal is political. But the greater part has to do with virtue. Under the thought of Augustine, is there any self other than a cruel and exacting superego which is demanding perfection of an unyielding id? Who would want to become their own jailer? We must answer that question for Augustine in the modern era. So what use is Augustine to us today to us moderns? He’ll always be there for the theologians and the philosophers, the classicist and the antiquarians, but I do agree with Dr. Smith’s view that there is something of vital importance available in Augustine, although it’s often overlooked by contemporary readers, and I do think it’s of special importance to young people.
In my view, so much of modern angst—and I speak here of the particular brand of nihilism sometimes seen among young people and especially young men, which translates into withdrawal from life in some cases and aggression with others, though typically it manifests as an almost-symptomless misery hidden within the person—has to do with a perceived lack of opportunities for heroism. Young men understand that in the past there were lots of opportunities to be heroic, to selflessly put themselves at risk for others, which is the essence of heroism. In the last American century, there were meaningful wars to be fought. There were families to be built and supported and sacrificed for and progress to be made toward the American dream. Today, those things can seem very remote to the average millennial. Accordingly, disturbing numbers of young people seek opportunities for heroism in video games, in fantasy, in sociopolitical movements, which I’m not saying are altogether a bad thing. But some of them can be violent or extreme in nature. And then the most regrettable give up on the idea of heroism altogether, call it into question as a principle. That resignation can look like a heedless and unhappy hedonism, or it can look like a painful and isolated withdrawal.
What can Augustine say to these alienated youths? Dr. Smith’s book’s look at Augustine’s biography is informative here. Augustine’s final commitment to God is restful, but his rest is a knight’s rest. It is battle weary and finally grateful for repose. For him, the Christian life is an adventurous one, a series of risks and sacrifices, abandoning a promising career, turning down an auspicious marriage, letting go of a beloved concubine, relinquishing sex, which for the majority of Augustine’s life seemed to be his primary source of short-term comfort, right? He’s just putting ice on a wound again and again and again. All of the sacrifices we make for God are ultimately sacrifices made for ourselves because God wills are good. But that doesn’t make participation in what Hauerwas calls the “adventure of Christian life” any less heroic. That Augustine certainly experienced his own adventure in Christianity is so clear in some of his poetic lines. Again, very famous ones from Confessions: “Why do you mean so much to me? he asks God. “Give me words to explain. Why do I mean so much to you that you should command me to love you? Have pity on me and help me. Tell me why you mean so much to me. Whisper into my heart, ‘I’m here to save you.'” Which tells you that what Augustine is doing is putting him at some risk. His ego is at risk, his prospects are at risk and indeed again and again, he has a heroic experience of the moral life. For the love of God, Augustine risked and sacrificed a process which drew out of him a body of work unmatched in history and left behind a legacy of enormous value to seekers of all kinds. For today’s young searchers, Augustine story demonstrates that there is real heroism in living the moral life, that there is indeed much left to fight for, and a beauty awaiting them ever ancient and ever new. Thank you so much.
Cherie Harder: Well, thank you, Jamie. Thank you, Liz. That was fascinating. I think we’re going to have a lot of fascinating questions from the audience, but we’ll start off with a brilliant personal question for both of you. Jamie, you’ve mentioned in your book, you called at one point Augustine a cartographer of the heart, but also wrestled with the fact that we are so often strangers to our own heart. So for both of you, how has your reading of Augustine revealed your heart to you?
Jamie Smith: Yeah, it’s interesting. I would say—I don’t know how vulnerable you want to get here. How mushy do you want to get? So I would say this book, working on this book, was a lot of kind of soul work for me because a lot of it was grappling with the fact that I carried a story in my bones that didn’t match the story that I believed about who I am and whose I am and what fathers mean in my life. I don’t want to get into it too much, but— And in a way, I think I just felt so—I have been so encouraged and inspired by Augustine’s vulnerability. Like Augustine really does risk a lot as a bishop to lay all of this stuff on the table and sort of let us peek into his soul so that he can move us and motivate us to do something the same. So I felt like he sort of inspired me to do the jack hammering into my soul that I needed to do, and I just tried to sort of follow the way.
Elizabeth Bruenig: So my experience of Augustine was that there’s like a cultural impetus to find yourself. And what I got out of Augustine is like, “Well, there’s nothing to find because you’re not there yet.” Right? It actually takes time to become who you are. You haven’t become yourself yet. Right? So I’m reading him as essentially a kid. You have to do all of these things, which are not sort of arbitrary things God asks you to do, but things that form you into who you are. So I remember had my first daughter and I was sitting at home with her and I was looking at her and I notice she has my eyes. There I am. Right. And in the whole process of, for me, having my family and then writing on religion professionally, you discover the same truth again and again. You just don’t understand them the first time you see them. You maybe get a tenth of it. You go over it again, you get half of it. Eventually, you get the whole thing, but it just takes time. And Augustine also had to become who he was, right? And what he realized was that actually would have been faster if he had just done what Monica had asked him to do. But he becomes himself through this process of obeying God.
Cherie Harder: So, Liz, you mentioned that Augustine has his detractors, and certainly he was not omniscient, and he made some significant errors, perhaps the most grievous and obvious of which was his misogyny. He wrote several times that he doubted whether women had souls, said they were good for very little besides procreation, and it’s easy to imagine that there are people who might find it hard to entrust their spiritual journey to someone who thought they didn’t have a soul. So for both of you, what would you say to someone who might have an aversion to taking a road trip with a misogynist?
Jamie Smith: Your voice is clearly more relevant on this question.
So when I was reading Augustine, you know, he is a very vulnerable writer, and he lays on the line a lot of his biography that people still own him for now. I mean, when you read about people who, when you read his detractors, they point out that he had this period of lasciviousness and lust and they say, “You know what a hypocrite. For you, but not for us.” So he was willing to endure that and he’ll endure it eternally. But so my read of Augustine is this guy didn’t hate women. This guy loved women and would have spent all his time with women. There’s a letter he gets from a group of nuns where they’re like, “Come, you know, come be our abbot. Come help us.” And he’s like, “I don’t think that would be good for me.” And he sends advice. But a lot of, I believe, you know, you can’t necessarily take writers at their word when, especially when they revealed to you very personal facts about their own experience. And so my understanding of Augustine going into “women don’t even have souls. They’re good for nothing but procreation” is like, “Oh, but could you really believe that?” Right? You don’t actually believe that. You have probably every night thoughts about going and trying to find your old concubine, who he loves so much that after dismissing her, he never says her name again. It destroys him, right? And he loves his mother. Women had such an incredible draw on him that if anything was going to pull him away from God after his conversion, that was going to be it and he knew it. And there’s a way in which people who have been addicted. So, you know, alcoholics don’t drink after they quit. Not even a little, typically, because if anything’s going to pull them out of that, that’s going to be that vice. Augustine had a hard time relating to women the way he should have, and that resulted in a lot of writing that when you read it—that’s a hot take. But I guess I never felt like those views were essential to his whole, the whole edifice of his thinking that really has to do with, you know, becoming who you are in Christ. And I mean, I think those views are wrong. But I don’t think you have to believe them to get where you’re trying to go with him.
Jamie Smith: I’m so appreciate hearing you articulate that, because obviously it’s a little easier as a man to come to this—or there’s less hurdles, in a sense. But I think that’s right. What I try to do in the book is sort of deconstruct Augustine in order to be his friend. Like sort of say, if you took the way—like Liz said, you know, these don’t seem actually central to the beating heart of what the Augustinian picture is. They’re there. And so what you need to do is look for those pieces. The role of Monica, the role of his concubine. And you see these hints of the alternative possibilities of trajectory. And you read Augustine as— I think you have to do the same thing on sex. I think his theology of sex has its own same limitations because of the overwhelmingness of his own biography in sort of shaping how he thought about that. So hopefully there’s a way to sort of read past him.
Elizabeth Bruenig: If he was a friend of yours, you would say, “I know a really smart guy who has lady problems.”
Jamie Smith: Yeah, he’s yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Reads a lot of David Foster Wallace. He’s got, yeah, absolutely.
Cherie Harder: So you both mentioned the problems with addiction, but there seems like there is a bit of a paradox there in that, Jamie, your previous works or at least several of your previous works had to do with cultural liturgies, that is picking liturgies and and developing them into habits to essentially help form one’s spiritual walk. In many ways, disordered habits are addictions. But where does the line between a formational habit and a deformational addiction start, and how can one avoid it?
Jamie Smith: Yeah, this is so— really great question. I think a parallel is a little bit in Liz’s remarks where you’re saying, some people, when they hear Augustine talk about bounded freedom, that just sounds like another kind of imprisonment, right? So how is that not just another kind of imprisonment? It strikes me, one significant difference is, the thing about an addiction is it is enervating, right? So it’s a kind of habit that so narrows the repertoire of my attention to things that it actually reduces, it makes me less than what I am called to be. Now I’m just this kind of entity that is looking for this one thing, and I’m so governed by that that it shuts down the fullness of being human. Whereas well-ordered habits, virtues, they are their own kinds of guardrails. They have their own kind of, you know— it’s second nature, but they are precisely the kinds of goods that open me up. They help me to realize the fullness of being human. They’re not shutting me down. And that seems like— Now, there’s a lot of ad hoc discernment that has to go on in discerning the difference between those two things. But I think it’s kind of relatively easy to see that an addiction is stealing from you, right? Like you’re devoting yourself to something that only just keeps gobbling you up and eating you alive. Whereas well-ordered loves and habits are devoting yourself to a one who has laid his life down and keeps feeding you at a table and nourishing you. So there’s a significant difference, I think.
Elizabeth Bruenig: I think that’s very right. And the other distinction that I would make is that addictions, these habits that are hurting you, seem to sort of trap you within yourself, as you mentioned a Leslie Jamison writing. And virtuous habits give you the opportunity to be for others. Augustine is like never so much in community as when he’s a bishop and he’s dealing with—I mean, you can see in his letters—religious communities, Roman authorities, local people. He kind of acts as like a small-claims court judge in that capacity, which is like a really weird job for him and drives him a little crazy. But he’s so much in the service of others, and that’s also where this great writing flourishes. And I think that’s a good distinction as well.
Cherie Harder: So we’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second, but before we do so, I know I’m speaking to a journalist and a philosopher here, but why is it, do you think, that 1,600 years later, Augustine is having a moment?
Jamie Smith: Well, and I mean, we should also say, I mean, Augustine’s had a lot of moments. I mean, he’s just so enduring. So I mean, we’re trying to make it a moment, but there’s something about he’s just there, you know, and he’s this constant presence. I love how Liz puts it. I mean, it is crazy that he still has haters and he has had throughout time. That said, though, I do think that there is something in the kind of Augustinian picture of the human person in its complexity, in its passions and affections, that does resonate with a kind of postmodern critique of modern reductionism. I think that might be one part of it. I don’t know. Do you have other?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah, I think Augustine, because his project in life turned out to be drawing closer and closer to God, was extremely human. It was reading Augustine that made me realize it’s not a bad thing to be human. It’s a very good thing to be human. In fact, the more virtuous you are, the more human you become, culminating in the most human human who was ever a human, who was Christ. And so I think that he just, in that process of being a human being, had a lot of the thoughts that you can think and wrote them down. And so he’s received by people again and again. Arendt. Charles Taylor goes deep into Augustine in Sources of the Self. So anywhere you turn, if you’re in the business of trying to understand what are we and what are we doing here, which philosophers do at a very high level and journalists at a different level, you’re going to run into him one way or the other.
Jamie Smith: I think that’s what most frustrates me about the caricatured version of Augustine that people rail against is, as we know, Augustine is a humanist in the fullest sense of the word, like, and embodies precisely the sense that Christianity is the truest humanism. And if we want to deconstruct anything, it’s that sort of the opposite picture that you can get in The New Yorker, whereas making Augustine complex is actually a little bit harder.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Augustine, when you meet people who have issues with him or have heard the caricatured version of Augustine, they tend to say like, “Well, isn’t he’s just the guy who was like, gloomy?”—Bertrand Russell says this—”guilty.” And I’m always like, Yeah, imagine having negative feelings. You know, he didn’t go through life anesthetized, right? I mean, he had a lot of feelings. He was very human.
Cherie Harder: So during this last part, we will turn this over to audience questions. And those of you who have been to a Trinity Forum event before know that we have three guidelines for this portion of our evening conversation. We asked that all questions be brief. All questions be civil, and all questions be in the form of a question. So we have several people, several volunteers with microphones. Please wait till you are called on until you actually receive that mic and then stand with your questions. So questions right here. I think fourth row, if you could stand up, it would make the the volunteer much more easy for them to see you.
Audience member 1: Hey, guys. Hi, Jamie. So the use of prodigal son—pages 11, 12 13—this notion in the original language, macron being the faraway land, he gets his buy on. He asked for the ousia, gets his buy on, he goes to macron, faraway land. Then the father sees him. And oftentimes we think it’s the father on the porch waiting. The prodigal decides to come home and then the father runs to him. The text says the father sees him in macron, in the faraway country. Is this poor consistent with Augustine’s idea that, yes, he squandered it. Yes, he had a turn, and thankfully the almighty was in the faraway land with him, not necessarily that he made a point to come back. What’s your take on that?
Jamie Smith: One of the burdens of the book is to say that the road trip in which Augustine finally found himself was the prodigal son’s road trip, and which he thinks is also a parable of the human condition. And so that we take the gifts of the creator and but wish the creator was dead, take it to a far country, spend it from— we spend our being down into nothingness. And then there’s this catalytic moment, right, where there’s the kind of wake-up call of sort of remembering what sorts of creatures we are and what we’re called to be. I think what happens is, the way that Augustine would narrate that is the wake-up call itself to entertain “Could the father ever receive me back?” is the first grace. Do you know what I mean? Like, that’s already the reach of the father who then runs out to meet you. The most significant bass note of Augustine’s theology is grace, which is why he gets really angry with Pelagians who think you can take care of yourself, why he would hate so much of our self-help culture. But at the end of the day, it’s about a grace that is a gift all the way down.
Cherie Harder: All right, next question. In the back.
Audience member 2: Two and a half questions.
Jamie Smith: Cheating.
Audience member 2: I am. The first is through an Augustinian lens, what is the greatest heresy that we face in the modern American church? And then part 2.5 is how might the modern American church intersect with pragmatic and authentic programs like AA and Al-Anon to reach people?
Jamie Smith: So [to Liz] you have to answer this, too. I’ll just say very quickly, I mean, there’s more than enough heresies to go around that would upset Augustine. [Laughter.] I’ll say this one because we remember this is the guy who wrote The City of God. I think what would pain Augustine today is the failure of so many who claim to be Christians to remember the kingdom is not here yet and that they serve a common king, not a sitting president. And so our failure to just remember where the center of our political identity lies, which is in the Kingdom of God, even though that means we are still called to love our neighbors and systems and structures of political life. But I think it’s that forgetting of the eschatological hope that Christians have an over-realized eschatology in this country right now. Not all Christians. A number of Christians who get on Fox News too much.
Elizabeth Bruenig: It’s very easy to imagine Augustine as a contemporary in many ways, but especially as like a blogger. You can imagine, like, reading his latest post and going to bed and waking up, and it’s like there are 16 new posts. Wow. And so I think, you know, one of the heresies he was really mad about was Donatism. And I think that because of the failures of the institutional church, especially the Catholic Church, at this point, you do run into a lot of people who feel like this whole project must be impossible, the misbehavior of our priests and bishops calls into question the possibility of the sacraments altogether. How can these people be the ones?
Jamie Smith: Which is what Donatism was.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Which was what it was all about, right. And they had their reasons. They’d been through the persecution of Diocletian. A lot of priests had apostatized to save their skin and then come back and tried to pick it all up again. And the Donatists were like, “No way, you can’t. You did the worst possible thing.” And they had done something very, very bad. But you run into people who have their reasons for thinking that, and I think that trying to heal that breach would probably be very important to Augustine at this point.
Jamie Smith: Also, Augustine’s critique of the Donatists is, to me, an emblematic passion Augustine has to call into question anybody who thinks they’re pure, right? So I think the reason I call this “a spirituality for realists” is because I do think at the heart of that Augustinian picture is just a deep awareness of how complex my own soul is and then how complex and messed up the body of Christ is. And so anybody who comes around telling you they’ve got the illusion of how to head to the hills and get to purity, Augustine’s very, very worried about how that’s going to spin out and reacts probably too strongly at times, obviously. But you can see where the passion comes from.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Getting the Roman military involved was may be a bridge too far.
Jamie Smith: Yeah. Unfortunate.
Cherie Harder: Other questions? Oh, right over here in the corner.
Audience member 3: So, Liz, you brought up how a lot of the angst in today’s world seems to be like a lack of opportunities for heroism. I know Jamie is written, I think, discussing the work of Charles Taylor, how that kind of nihilism in the secular age kind of masquerades as a form of heroism, of saying like, “I’m brave enough to look into the darkness to see that there’s nothing there.” I’m curious how you think Augustine would answer that and say that that is a form of false courage that’s taking bravery in the wrong area.
Elizabeth Bruenig: So I’m going to look this way because that’s where my microphone is. So, I mean, I think, you know, Augustine’s work on evil is very instructive here, which is hard to understand at first. But evil is non-existence, right? They are synonymous with one another. So any time you’re looking into something and saying, “I see nothing,” another way of putting that is you’re entering into an area of great evil. And so over time, this was something that I learned and then I kind of put aside and I would apply it to situations and over time became sort of more and more convinced that that’s a pretty good schema. And I think what Augustine would say is, so this nothingness that you’re looking into and realizing that it’s nothing, where does that draw you? Does it draw you deeper into nothingness, in which case you’re destroying yourself, right? Sort of bleeding into nonexistence. And that turn towards nonexistence is sin. And he would say, you know, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can, rather than being less and less of what you are, you can be more and more. And in fact, fully be who you are. And that is the alternative direction. And you know, there’s a cowardice as well in the sort of turn towards not being because it is easier in certain respects than the sort of heroic virtue that it takes to be what you actually are.
Jamie Smith: Yeah, I think this thread of the heroism piece is really intriguing and that Augustine’s rest is the night’s rest I just love. I think that’s remarkable because the rigor and ardor and struggle of the spiritual life—for Augustine, to be in Christ is not a solution. You know, it just introduces you to a different struggle. I would need to think a little bit more. I think it’s really intriguing your question, the way it weaves together. I think what happens in the kind of scenario that Liz has analyzed is the ironist is our last hero, right? So the ironist is the one who sees through everything and knowingly insulates himself, usually, herself, from caring. And now that becomes a certain—. So the ironist as a saint to exemplify. And then I think what Augustine is going to say is, “How’s that working out for you?” I mean, a lot of Augustine’s question is often at some version of “how’s that working out for you?” And by the way, you can make things work for a long time. You can’t sort of argue people out of this. It does come from a sort of existential encounter with the failure of that construal of being human. And that’s then when Augustine wants to say, “Let me, tell you why that doesn’t work for you.” You could say that a society could go for a long time imagining that it does, and I think that’s the hard thing to sometimes watch. Maybe. Yeah.
Cherie Harder: I think there was a question back there. Yes. If you could just stand so it’s easier for our volunteer to see you. It’d be great.
Audience member 4: Hello, thank you all for joining. My name is Andrew. I think one thing that’s really interesting about Augustine is you have this massive foil behind him of Monica. So as you think about your studies of Augustine, what have you learned about being a parent? Or I mean, particularly for Liz, about being a mother and a mother who loves the way God loves?
Jamie Smith: Liz, this would be you too, except I really want to say something.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Yeah, she’s such a great model. My first daughter’s middle name is Grace, because Augustine is the doctor of Grace. Yeah, I mean, like, it’s tempting to be like you should hector them forever about getting it.
Jamie Smith: Yes. Helicopter parent extraordinaire.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Never give up the fight. Every time they call, be like you Christian yet? [Laughter.]
Jamie Smith: And just cry a little bit as you’re asking.
Elizabeth Bruenig: When they say like, no, be like, OK. [Sighs.] Right? It’s that, you know, I mean, she’s such a wonderful figure because so much of the action in his story has to do with Monica. And he, you know, he’s such a complex figure. He doesn’t put her— I mean, he puts her on a pedestal, but probably not to the degree his detractors think.
Jamie Smith: No.
Elizabeth Bruenig: Right, he’s willing to realize that she had faults. What I think is interesting about Monica in Augustine’s view is the degree to which you can go from reading her in his narration as like a provincial Berber woman who doesn’t know anything to the woman who was actually really, really knowledgeable all along, compared to his sort of worldly or pagan father Patricius, who winds up looking like someone who didn’t really understand that much about how to be a man. And so, you know, that’s the kind of mom I think I’d like to be. It’s like, “Look, I know everything you know. You’re not going to find anything in the modern world that I haven’t encountered. You think I’m your lame old mom. And true to some extent. But I know of the world and I’ve still done the things I’ve done and come to the conclusion that I ought to be who I am.” So like, have a little faith and parenting is about making the same kind of declarations to your children that God makes. I’m not going explain to you why you have to do this. My daughter’s like, Why do I have to wear a car seat? Why do I have to get in the car seat? It sucks. You know, you’re like strapped into an astronaut chair and you can’t move around. And I’m like, Listen, not up for discussion. One day you’ll understand that you can die. But I’m not going to try to get into that with a three-year-old at this point. [Laughter.]
Jamie Smith: Right, right. It’s a little early. It’s coming. It’s coming.
Elizabeth Bruenig: But building that trust. You have to trust me. Right? Which is what God says again and again. You have to have faith. You have to trust me, and then you can be everything that you are. That’s the first step.
Jamie Smith: So the chapter on mothers is my favorite chapter in the book, actually, if I’m allowed to say that, and the chapter on fathers was the hardest. The chapter on mothers is in many ways dedicated to Deana. So we did this—this was a ruse to drink wine in Tuscany—but we followed Augustine’s trail from Ostia the port city through Rome up through the way he would have made his way up to Milan. But what we were watching for also was the way Augustine is received in the subsequent centuries. And I would say without question, the thing that I realized is actually Monica is as ubiquitous and almost more ubiquitous in iconography in tiny little chapels in hill towns than Augustine is. And it’s because she is who— Where are there not mothers worried about their children? Do you what I mean? Like, is there anything more universal and ubiquitous than mothers fretting and praying and fiercely loving and longing to see their children flourish? And the cult of Monica to me speaks to one of the most, deepest human hungers. And so that’s in some ways— Ambrose and Monica are actually the two who I came to a new appreciation for. And one of the things that’s beautiful is one of the things that made Augustine really reconsider his mom’s faith was how much Ambrose, the intellectual giant, admired her. And so it’s a really, really powerful example I think.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to take two more questions. Right over there.
Audience member 5: I think you, Jamie, you quoted an author saying something about the way out of the claustrophobic crawl space of cells.
Jamie Smith: Yeah, Leslie Jamison
Audience member 5: Which is great. And then after that you said it’s not freedom from, but freedom for the end of myself. It reminded me a little bit of John Piper and his Christian hedonism. Maybe because I’m not super well-read. I haven’t read more. So my question was, who else should we read if we want to read about other modern theologians who are writing about not freedom from but freedom for?
Elizabeth Bruenig: Hauerwas.
Jamie Smith: Hauerwas. Yeah, yeah. Stanley Hauerwas is, I think, also because he helps make it so communal, right? The other thing to appreciate is, Augustine, you know, you could kind of mistakenly get the impression that this is like this individual journey. But really, the overwhelming picture of Augustine is one of dependence on community and friends. And I think that’s another powerful testimony in the way Hauerwas writes about it.
Elizabeth Bruenig: You could take a wild ride and read Milbank.
Jamie Smith: Well, I thought we want to be friendly. Yeah, I mean, there’s um— in some ways I think this is— I would say, William Cavanaugh actually is somebody else, a contemporary theologian, who I think has diagnosed the particularly dysfunctional conception of freedom that we work with today.
Cherie Harder: Last question. We’ll go right over there. Stand up so you can be seen.
Audience member 6: Hi, thank you. This has been great. I see how Augustine answers sort of the very loud sort of Heideggerian cult of authenticity today, but I wonder what else he might say to say to the more quiet indifferentism of, “All right like, Augustine, you found your way out, but you know, you sort of had to break it to learn how to fix it.” And I think that’s sort of another idea that accompanies a lot of modern indifferentism. So I was just wondering what would Augustine have to say about that?
Jamie Smith: So you’re calling it modern indifferentism, sort of like an apathy of like whateverism?
Audience member 6: Yeah, something between that and also you have to make up to, like, know how to do right. Those might be different things, but those are sort of two ideas I hear.
Jamie Smith: [To Liz] Do you have an immediate thought?
Elizabeth Bruenig: He’s talking about like the Blakean theory of how you come to wisdom, right?
Jamie Smith: Yeah, maybe, maybe.
Elizabeth Bruenig: You have to do lots of things that don’t work out to truly understand the things that do. How does Augustine rebut that?
Jamie Smith: And I hear you saying, how does Augustine speak to somebody who’s just like blasé? Is that? I mean, I guess the other way—this is not an answer to your question; I’m just looking to say something, right? Because I apologize, I just don’t quite understand the question. The one thing I’ll say is, somebody has pointed out to me, you know, not everybody—maybe in this generation, maybe in an emerging generation, the freedom of the road is actually not kind of their trope. Do you what I mean? We know people are getting less and less—fewer and fewer people are getting driver’s licenses, for example. So maybe that cult is not the same. Maybe it’s something more like the cult of identity. Or not cult, but the hope for an identity that tells me who I am and who I belong to, and that makes a lot of sense. I think it explains white nationalism and the disenchantment of young white men who glob on to now a form of community that is disordered because it comes at the expense of others. It actually doesn’t have room for others. I think Augustine’s can speak very directly to that kind of hunger for identity, but the way he does is articulating it in terms of story. So what he would say is what does it look like to find myself in a story that’s given to me? And what’s the shape of that story and what does it say about being human and what does it say about my neighbors? So there’s a lot of angles into how Augustine has relevance. I don’t want to pretend that he’s like the magic. He doesn’t answer every question in that regard. Yeah.
Cherie Harder: So before we wrap up, Jamie, I’m going to give you the last word. If you could leave people with one take-away from your book, what would it be?
Jamie Smith: I think what I hope people would find in an encounter with Augustine is his own experience of being utterly transparent and vulnerable before God, who knows everything about you and still says, “I love you. I know you. I see you. I see it all. Welcome home.” That seems to be the takeaway.
Cherie Harder: Jamie, Liz, thank you very much. We know there were many questions we didn’t get to, and we invite you to purchase a copy of Jamie’s book, which are available for sale just outside for $25 each. We highly recommend it and invite you to avail yourself of that opportunity. We also want to submit a second invitation to all of you, which is to join the Trinity Forum Society. For many of you, this is your first time here, and if you’re thinking this is different from what I’ve experienced before, we can only respond, we certainly hope so. Part of our effort is to try to create a space that is all too rare that in a midst of a culture characterized by distraction, divisiveness, and alienation to provide a place for thoughtful professionals to wrestle with questions about what matters most in a spirit of intellectual rigor and warm hospitality and in the context of faith. There are very few other places like it and your sponsorship and your membership helps make that possible. There’s other benefits of joining the Trinity Forum society as well, which include our quarterly Trinity Forum readings, such as excerpts from Augustine’s City of God with an introduction by Eric Gregory. Just as a teaser, our Christmas reading will feature selections from the Confessions with an introduction by none other than our keynoter tonight, Jamie Smith. Sign up now! In addition to our quarterly readings, you’ll also receive our daily list of what we’re reading, curated reading recommendations, as well as a special benefit for tonight, which is the first ten people who join will get their own free and autographed copy of Jamie’s book, so avoid what will be a very long line. Join the Trinity Forum Society and bypass that if you want more information. There should be a brochure on your chair. And also all of my colleagues would love to talk to you about the Trinity Forum society. So my able colleagues, if you could stand up and wave so people can see who you are. If you have any questions about the Trinity Forum society, ask them. If you have questions about sponsoring an events like the one tonight, ask them.
As well as we wrap up tonight, it’s appropriate to end with thanks. And as you might imagine, an event like this only happens with a lot of people contributing, so we’re particularly thankful to our sponsor and our partners. Katie Weine and the staff at CESA, as well as the board. It’s been a pleasure to work with you on this. Thank you to our volunteers Ross Hallam, Darian Contou, Matthew McKnight, and intern emeritus Noel Michael, our fantastic photographer Clay Blackmore, my fantastic colleagues Alyssa Abraham, Hannah Smith, and Rebecca Noyes, as well as our interns Emily Scholz and Annika Erickson. Finally, thank you again to Jamie and Liz for a fantastic conversation. Thank you to each of you for coming and good night.